Message in Beeswax from a Missing Galleon


BEESWAX that defies both time and tide has been a mystery of the Pacific for about 150 years. When Alexander Henry was fur trader at Astoria back in 1814, Indians were digging in chunks of wax from beach sands near the mouth of the Nehalem River in the primitive Oregon Country. They lugged loads of the stuff over terrifying trails, crisscrossing rugged Mt. Neah-Kah-Nie for trade with Henry. He, too, was curious about the origin of this beeswax and concluded that it must have come from a wreckage of a Spanish vessel lost long before his time.

About 100 years later, a professor at the University of Oregon devoted scientific consideration to the Nehalem wax. He mentioned that it had long been an enigma to the theorizing antiquarian, a despair to the sordid promoter, and a solace for the space writer. Only recently a block bearing the numerals “67” was subjected to the Carbon-14 test to determine its age. This wax was formed in 1681.

Early settlers in the Nehalem country went to the site where the wax was usually found and observed vestiges of a very old wreck. There they started plowing. This surface operation yielded 450 pounds of wax. Soon a fellow came who staked himself a beeswax claim and before his digging petered out he had uncovered about three tons.

Diggers discovered wax in strange and varied shapes. Some of the larger cakes weighed up to forty pounds and were in the shape of parallelograms. On many cakes appeared deeply incised letters and symbols. One well preserved piece bore a perfect capital N fine inches in length and surmounted by a smaller neatly inscribed diamond. Other pieces carried combinations of letters such as INS and IHN. These symbols were marks of identification to the consignee in Mexico. Antiquarians suggested that INS was an abbreviation for In Hoc Nomen, good church Latin for “In His Name.” Also unearthed were a few entire tapers and many broken ones, both large and small. These were burned in the Spanish colonial churches of America. A very few contained fragments of rotted wick. Religious images could also be created in the pliable beeswax.

Mrs. Helen Smith, schooled daughter of a Clatsop Indian chief, told an impressive story about the beeswax ship. She had collected and critically sifted tribal traditions for reliable historical information. She concluded that a score or more had survived the wreck of the beeswax ship and briefly had lived among the natives. But they imprudently meddled with marital relationships and were soon slain to the last seducer. Mrs. Smith concluded that the disastrous wreck occurred between 100 and 1710.

Oregon’s beeswax mystery inevitably became a remunerative theme for the “thrill” writers. Into their beeswax stories they wove a web of buried treasure, privacy and affairs of the heart. One legend told of a chest of treasure removed from the wreckage and buried upon or near Mt. Neah-Kah-Nie that overlooks the sea. The story relates that a Kaffir slave was slain above the buried treasure to discourage superstitious Indians from plundering the cached wealth.

No man known to have found Nehalem’s legendary treasure. Early seekers came to dig with picks and shovels. Modern treasure hunters bring bulldozers and power machinery.

A SPECIMEN of the Nehalem wax was displayed at the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893. There an exalted commissioner examined the piece and declared it was not beeswax at all.

“What is it then?” asked an Oregonian who had seen the old candles, knew that the stuff smelled like beeswax when melted, and used the stuff to toughen thread used in sewing and cobbling

“Why, it’s ozokerite, a paraffin wax,” explained the commissioner.

Finally someone produced a specimen of the Nehalem wax with a long dead bee embedded in it. Then a chemist demonstrated that the specimen had the precise melting point of beeswax, a characteristic of no other wax.

But here remained a hard core of ozokerite resistance. To ozokerites, the wax suggested oil deposits. And a bountiful oil well is just what they wanted. About 1910, a derrick was erected near the site of the old wax deposit and drilling for oil started with publicity and a hurrah. Funds soon became depleted with no oil discovered. Disenchanted investors wanted to hear no more a bout ozokerite, beeswax, paraffin wax or any other kind of wax. Beeswax fans have lately been enlightened by William Lytle Schurz’s Manila Galleon,

Beeswax fans have lately been enlightened by William Lytle Schurz’s Manila Galleon, a monumental contribution by a specialist in Spanish colonial enterprise, which required twenty-seven years of research for its preparation. The Manila Galleon is concerned with the Spanish monopoly of trade between Acapulco in Mexico and Manila in the Philippines. It flourished over an interval of 250 years, between 1565 and 1815.

No other transportation line known to history endured for so long. No other commercial route familiar to navigation was so remote or undertook a voyage so long, so tedious or more dreadfully perilous. Average duration of the easterly crossing was seven months at sea on a galleon that was always crowed, lacked refrigeration, sanitation, medical attention or a wholesome supply of food.

Schurz introduces his readers to Dr. John Francis Gemelli-Careri, an Italian gadabout of fortune who ventured the easterly voyage on the galleon San Francisco Xavier, sailing from Manila in 1697.

The San Francisco Xavier was overloaded and inspectors came aboard and order bales of merchandise and packages of beeswax, a deck cargo, taken ashore to lighten the vessel. When the galleon failed on May 22, 1697, 200 persons were aboard. After a voyage of 204 days and five hours, those who were yet alive, arrived at Acapulco.

Gemelli-Careri relates that after five months at sea the galleon was a hungry, plagued and stinking charnel ship. Scurvy and beriberi were rampant. Many had already died. Little vermin, called gorgons by the Spaniards, swarmed over the galleon and ultimately fastened themselves upon the human bodies to fatten. An abundance of lies fell into the broth in which swam worms of various sorts. In every mouthful of food, declared Gemelli-Careri, went down an abundance of maggots and gorgojos, chewed and bruised.

Cape Mendicino in northern California, the first American landfall for the galleon, was a region of great storms and diverse ocean currents. The galleons Espiritu Santo and Jesus Maria were nearly lost in this turbulent locality in 1604. Strong ocean currents, which drift northern redwood against the Oregon coast, could easily have carried a helpless Manila galleon to the Nehalem beach.

Again, in 1705, the San Francisco Xavier, now old and ocean worn, sailed from Manila. She was not again seen or ever officially accounted for; it cannot be doubted that beeswax was again deck cargo.

From Manzanita Beach along the Oregon coast, it is a pleasant walk to site where beeswax was once found in abundance. Now but little is found. Over this brooding region of low, windswept dune and driftwood is a remoteness that challenges exploration and inspire the imagination to dream of buried treasure. Certainly it was a day of violence-of awesome tragedy-when the beeswax deposit sank near the mouth of the Nehalem River centuries ago.

Source: True West August, 1966

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